ISIS emboldened by US Syria withdrawal
The Financial Times, the Guardian and Reuters report on Syria. The Financial Times reports that US President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, landed in Turkey on Monday in an effort to persuade Ankara not to attack American-backed Kurdish forces in Syria, as Washington attempts to contain the fallout from the US President’s abrupt decision to withdraw troops from Syria. John Bolton was expected to ask Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, to rule out military action against Kurdish militants that dominate the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of fighters who formed the backbone of the US-led campaign against ISIS jihadis in north-east Syria. But divisions were laid bare before his arrival as Hulusi Akar, the Turkish Defence Minister, restated Ankara’s opposition to the armed Kurdish groups who control a swath of territory on its border. “This terrorist organisation threatens regional security and stability and prevents Syrian refugees, including Kurds, from returning to their homes,” he said. Reuters reports that according to reports from the Hurriyet newspaper, Turkey will ask US officials in talks today to hand over its military bases in Syria to Ankara or destroy them; a request that could further complicate discussions over the US withdrawal from Syria. The Guardian reports that Bolton and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen Joseph Dunford, are in Turkey for what are expected to be tense talks with Turkish officials. Erdogan’s spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, sharply criticised Bolton for his insistence that Turkey not attack Kurdish Syrian forces that have fought with the US against ISIS. Ankara sees those forces as a branch of militant Kurdish insurgents inside Turkey and describes them as terrorists. Meanwhile, US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, is due to begin a tour of Arab capitals today, largely to reassure allies and clarify policy after the President’s abrupt announcement last month that the Islamic State had been defeated in Syria and the roughly 2,000 US troops still in the country would be leaving.
The Times reports that western forces have intensified the bombing of eastern Syria as they battle to clear Islamic State’s last redoubts to justify President Trump’s claim that the jihadists have been defeated. New figures show a sharp escalation in the bombardment as coalition air forces and their local Kurdish-led allies try to overcome resistance in the small remaining pocket of ISIS territory. Figures from Operation Inherent Resolve, the anti-ISIS coalition, suggest that between December 16 and December 29, there were 478 strikes on ISIS positions with 469 in Syria. That brought the total for the month to around 950. By contrast, the figure for November was about 650, October 493 and September 236.
The Independent reports that according to western officials, ISIS has been emboldened to carry out counter-attacks like the one which injured two British SAS soldiers this weekend, by Donald Trump declaring that he is pulling out US forces out of the country. President Trump’s decision has led to grave concerns among US allies, including Britain, which have forces in Syria. ISIS is taking advantage of the uncertainty and confusion to motivate its fighters and launch assaults, according to a number of western military sources. A senior British official drew a comparison with the early announcement of a pullout of the international forces in Afghanistan which was criticised for giving the Taliban the incentive to hang on and keep fighting. “The attack which injured the two soldiers show that the fight against Daesh [ISIS] is by no means over. What happened shows Daesh still have access to potent weaponry,” stressed the British official.
Author and Professor, Avi Shlaim writes in the Guardian that “ten years after the first war on Gaza, Israel still plans endless brute force”. Shlaim argues that since its unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, the “two hallmarks of Israel’s treatment of Gaza…have been mendacity and the utmost brutality towards civilians”.
Reuters reports that Iran’s Foreign Minister has said that the European Union is moving more slowly than expected in facilitating non-dollar trade with Tehran to circumvent US sanctions, forcing it to explore avenues with other nations. “We continue to work with the Europeans for the special purpose vehicle but we are not waiting for them,” Mohammad Javad Zarif told reporters in New Delhi. “We are working with our traditional partners like India, like China, like Russia so that we continue to work in the interest of our people.”
The Financial Times reports that the Middle East’s largest broadcaster is expanding its video streaming service in a bid to rival Netflix in the Arab world as the Saudi government steps up its use of media assets in regional power battles. The move by Saudi-controlled MBC Group, which is based in Dubai, is part of Riyadh’s efforts to wage fierce propaganda wars against rivals Iran and Qatar. Media assets, ranging from satellite news to football rights, have become soft power weapons for governments including the United Arab Emirates, a Saudi ally, as the region has been reordered since the Arab uprisings of 2011. MBC’s newly-launched production house, MBC Studios, is already working on new films and shows to feed the video service, the people added, including historical biopics of Arab leaders and a dramatisation of the folk tales of 1,001 Nights. MBC also plans to buy content from the rest of the world.
The Guardian reports that Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, used a nationally broadcast address to demand that he be allowed to confront, live on television, the state’s witnesses who have implicated him in three corruption cases. Netanyahu suggested that the best resolution to his legal issues, which have cast a shadow over his hopes of re-election, should be a reality TV moment where he faces his accusers. “What are they afraid of? I’m not afraid. I have nothing to lose,” Netanyahu said, adding: “I’m willing for it to be livestreamed for the public to hear the full truth. I’m confident in my truth.” He described the investigation against him as “biased”. The speech, which had been billed as a “dramatic announcement”, was the latest effort by Netanyahu to push back against the investigation and the Attorney General, Avichai Mandelblit.
The Telegraph reports that authorities in Iran have cancelled Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s weekly phone calls with her husband and have begun reducing her food rations, after the jailed British-Iranian charity worker announced she was planning a hunger strike. ‘Free Nazanin’, an organisation run by Mrs Zaghari Ratcliffe’s family calling for her release, tweeted on Sunday: “Following announcement of a planned hunger strike, Iranian authorities have cancelled Nazanin’s weekly call with her husband and imposed restrictions on all other calls.”
The Times reports that a $2 billion deal to sell dozens of Russian passenger jets to Iran has fallen through because they are “too American”. Two Iranian airlines each agreed last year to buy 20 of the flagship Sukhoi Superjets, but the deal has been put on hold indefinitely because the aircraft have so many American parts that they require a US export licence. Maqsoud Asadi Samani, the secretary of the Association of Iranian Airlines, told Iran’s INLA news agency that Russia had been unable to reduce the proportion of US parts in the Superjets to below 10 per cent, which would allow them to be sold without a licence.
All the Israeli media assess Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ‘dramatic announcement’ last night. Channel 10 news reminded viewers that in March 2018 the Prime Minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu, refused to confront the two state’s witnesses in Case 4,000, Nir Hefetz and Shlomo Filber. Fraud squad detectives brought the two state’s witnesses to the building with the goal of holding a confrontation with Mrs. Netanyahu as part of their investigation but the two witnesses were released after Mrs Netanyahu refused to confront them. Channel 10’s legal affairs commentator said: “Law enforcement officials breathed a sigh of relief last night after hearing Prime Minister Netanyahu’s statements. Some of them thought that the Prime Minister was going to go public with a recording of one of the detectives that might have tipped the scales. At all events, this was an attempt by Netanyahu to shape public opinion in the run-up to elections. Netanyahu’s arguments proved to be about trivialities, and not about something that might impact the cases against him.” Maariv notes: “The very thought that the Prime Minister of Israel drove the entire country crazy for hours in order to make this announcement, proves that anyone who thinks that a Prime Minister under investigation cannot run a country is right… the Prime Minister has exhausted his credit on being able to give dramatic announcements. The next time his people promise such an announcement, it should be recorded first and then broadcast, if it deserves to be. Yesterday he looked bad, desperate, like a drowning man grasping at straws. He has to understand one simple thing: he does not run the investigations against himself. He does not sit in the television control rooms. He thinks that he does, and perhaps that’s why all his troubles started. This is sad.” In Israel Hayom: “It is now clear: the Prime Minister wants a single agenda to dominate the elections. As far as he is concerned, security, foreign policy, the economy and all other issues else can be shunted aside. Even though he is capable of facing off against his rivals on those issues as well, Netanyahu doesn’t want to. He wants the elections to be about the investigations and only about them…. Ahead of the upcoming elections, the Prime Minister had to reinvent himself. In contrast to the last elections, when the race between the Likud and its rival party was close, this time the Likud is safely in the lead to win, while all other parties are floundering behind by a large gap. Netanyahu realized that unless that changes, it will be difficult-to-impossible for him to argue, as he did last time, that right wing’s hold on power is in danger—which worked beyond imagination four years ago—and that the Likud could lose precious seats in the last lap to the satellite parties. So how does one work with a near-certain victory, on the one hand, and continue to claim to be persecuted and in danger of losing power, on the other hand? You continue to talk about the investigations—and you force everyone else to do the same.”
Haaretz reports that Israeli security services arrested a Palestinian man responsible for the December shooting attack at Givat Assaf, where two Israeli soldiers were killed. According to the Shin Bet, Assam Barghouthi, 29, was also involved in the drive-by shooting in the same area, where a pregnant Israeli woman was wounded and her new born baby, delivered prematurely immediately following the attack, died. Barghouthi’s brother, Salah, who was allegedly behind this attack, was shot dead by Israeli forces during his attempted arrest later the same week. According to the Shin Bet, Assam Barghouthi had also been planning further attacks against Israeli targets.
Yediot Ahronot reports that at the last moment, yesterday Israel stopped the latest instalment of $15 million in cash from Qatar to the Gaza Strip. That decision was made in response to a rocket that was fired on Sunday night at Ashkelon and which was intercepted by an Iron Dome battery. The rocket was fired after a bomb was flown into Israel from Gaza attached to a drone and disguised by a large number of coloured balloons. The paper quotes Hamas saying: “The Zionist occupation isn’t allowing us our rights and is denying them to us. The marches of return will continue until the siege is lifted and our rights are given to us. It is incumbent upon the mediators to oblige Israel to implement the understandings, since Israel will bear responsibility for the delay in the implementation of the understandings and the denial of our people’s rights.” The paper also quotes Labour MK Itzik Shmuli, the new opposition chief whip who said: “This lesson was especially expensive, and the bill is ultimately going to be paid by the entire Israeli public. Netanyahu gave Hamas more than 50 million dollars before he remembered that Israel’s job is to fight terrorism and not to fuel it.”
All the Israeli newspapers pay tribute to Moshe Arens: Yediot Ahronot declares “farewell to the Gentleman”, while Israel Hayom refers to him as Mr Security. Arens was Israel’s first civilian defence minister. In Haaretz, Aluf Benn, the editor in chief writes: “He enjoyed telling the story about the first briefing he received from the intelligence branch about Syria, when he took office in 1983. The officers showed him, as they do, frightening statistics about the strength of the army on the other side of the “iron curtain” in the Golan Heights. Arens cut them off: “Do you know what the Syrian defence budget is?” His embarrassed interlocutors admitted they had no idea. He sent them to do their homework, which showed how weak Syria was compared to Israel, even during a period when the Israeli economy was hobbled by hyperinflation.”
Yediot Ahronot includes further details of a young soldier, Sgt. Evyatar Yosefi, 20, who drowned in the Hilazon river near Karmiel in the early hours of Monday. “At around 5am, Yosefi and another soldier reached the river, which was between half a metre to one meter deep due to the heavy rainfall. The second soldier was able to reach the other bank, but Yosefi tripped for a yet unknown reason and was carried away by the current. Yosefi apparently had time to tell the second soldier that he was slipping, and the latter threw a rope to him in an effort to pull him up, but to no avail. The search for Sgt. Yosefi lasted an hour and a half, and he was eventually found by the Israel Air Force’s 669 Search and Rescue Unit some 100 meters away from where he tried to cross the stream. He was airlifted to the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, but was pronounced dead on the way after resuscitation attempts failed. Ground Force Commander Maj. Gen. Kobi Barak halted all navigation training, and GOC Central Command Maj. Gen. Nadav Padan ordered the formation of a team of experts, headed by Etzioni Brigade Commander Col. Oren Simcha, to investigation the incident.”